Sunday, September 18, 2016

Book Review: Encountering The Manuscripts

I never gave much thought as to how the New Testament came to be written. I had assumed that someone carefully compiled the various writings sometime in the late 1st century, and that an intact New Testament existed from that time. That being said, I was frequently confused by footnotes in my study Bible such as “Not found in most reliable manuscripts” or “scribal addition”. What did these footnotes mean in relation to the Bible? These questions and more were answered by the book “Encountering The Manuscripts” by Philip Comfort.

This book is a combination of biblical history and interpretation, and the study of the evaluation of the text of the various manuscripts in an attempt to discern the original wording of the Greek New Testament. It is a fact-based book, packed with information. I personally read this on a Kindle, which I found to be somewhat difficult due to the many pictures of portions of Greek manuscripts which are included as education for students studying these manuscripts. While the presentation is somewhat clearer on the computer-based Kindle app, I would expect the best presentation to be found in a physical book.

Encountering The Manuscripts begins with a background on manuscript production in the early Church. This chapter provides a critical basis for the remainder of the book. For example, it explains that a primary route of information transmission in the first century (and before) was oral. (This fact alone explains the text in Deuteronomy 6:4-7 instructing parents to repeat “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” to their children continually.) Thus, believers were first presented with the oral proclamation, which was followed by written documents. Rereading the Gospels and Epistles with this in mind clarifies some of the wordings found in these writings, for example Luke 1:1-4. The first chapter also contains information as to how the writings were produced (the Apostles did not necessarily actually physically record their teachings), how they were approved by the  creator, and the presence or absence of Nomina Sacra (for example IHC for Jesus).

In subsequent chapters, there is a listing and explanation of which manuscripts (from the Greek) and printed editions (interpretations of the manuscripts) the author considers to be significant. It is here where one finds that, with few exceptions, no extant manuscripts exist. The various books of the New Testament were assembled and interpreted from fragments of manuscripts (some containing only a few words) which were found scattered across the region from Italy to Egypt. This was eye-opening to me, and revealed some of the difficulties that have been encountered in the mere act of assembling the New Testament.

A further chapter describes the history and use of the Nomina Sacra, and how various scribes and writers incorporated them into their manuscripts. The author details that some of the Nomina Sacra were quite universal, while others may have been used by only one or a few scribes. As well as scribal variants, variants also existed across time. In addition to the Nomina Sacra changing with with time, the actual Greek writing varied depending on the particular time period of the writing. These variations presented both an opportunity and a curse. The various styles of writing assisted in assigning the dates that the particular manuscript was actually produced. However, the variations in the text increased the difficulties unraveling the original wordings of the original manuscripts.

The author ends the book describing the various approaches that are taken to get at the original wording. As with most fields of inquiry, there are many approaches and, while individual investigators may favor one or another, frequently multiple approaches are needed to extract the desired information. Philip Comfort strove to present the various approaches faithfully, though he did express his opinion as to the best way to approach dating of the manuscripts and reconstructing the original documents. Being no means an expert in the field, I could only rely on the author’s insights and experience to guide me here.

In addition to his writings, the author has included pictures of the manuscripts in an effort to highlight his points, and to accentuate the difficulties faced by those studying the manuscripts. If one studied these examples, one can see pretty clearly the detail that the students of ancient text must comprehend and know in order to be effective in their task. One also has the opportunity to see what types of information is available for the study, from small fragments up to several page manuscripts. The incorporation of these images was not only invaluable to students, but they also presented the layman with challenges faced by those studying the manuscripts.

I found the book overall to be fascinating and quite informative, though somewhat dry in places. As a student, this book would seem to be a valuable resource in the study of the manuscripts. As a lay person, as I said, some parts were dry. But the book did give me an new appreciation for the mere fact that we have a Bible. It also provided much insight as to the history of information transmission and writing as it took place some 2000 years ago. One can only have respect for those who can piece together these partial jigsaw puzzles into a coherent message.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Right Where I Am Supposed To Be

God is truly amazing. He speaks to me regularly, and he uses so many different ways of getting through to me. Sometimes he speaks to me in the quiet morning hours, before I get distracted by my day. Sometimes it's through my wife. Sometimes it's music. And sometimes it's friends.

God has blessed me with many friends from high school. No, we don't hang out regularly. Or go to picnics together regularly. Or even chat on the phone regularly. We don't live in the same cities or even in the same states. But that doesn't stop the contacts, the memories, the interchange. In fact, our most regular means of communication is via the internet and social media. As many downsides as there are to social media (one could spend all day posting and reading posts, to the exclusion of everything else, if one so chose), it is great for meeting new people and for reconnecting with old friends.

Maybe you are wondering what these two paragraphs have to do with one another. Well, let me tell you. One of the prayers that I make to God every day is to let me know his will for me. What is my calling? Music? Deaconate? Back to work? Stopping everything and just be a good retired husband and father? Something I'm completely missing? I was struggling with this. Until I got a message from one of my good high school friends.

He was relating to me what was going on in his life. Hectic. Busy. Trying to get things going. Then, he said that he realized that he was right where God wants him to be. Bingo! When will I learn? I was told this by a priest friend of mine years ago – God's timing is perfect. It was not in relation to my particular calling. On the other hand, God's timing isn't perfect for just some things. It''s perfect for everything. So, I realized that God has a plan for me. (as Van Zant sings, 'if you want to hear God laugh tell him your plans'). My role in this? Keep praying. Keep trusting. Keep listening. God will tell me what to next, and when I should do it. 

The peace of Christ. One of the results of trusting in Jesus.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

God's Power Is Amazing

In my continuing efforts to grow closer to God, and to gain a better understanding of Catholicism, I have been studying the Bible. Currently I am studying Acts, the acts of the apostles. As you know, Acts describes the spread of Christianity from the original 12 apostles and 70 or so disciples to the world. It is a truly amazing recounting of the changes that took place in all of Jesus's disciples.

For example we have the original 12 apostles. Terrified. Hiding in a room. Afraid for their very lives. After all, they followed Jesus, who was crucified! But, after they received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they boldly went out and proclaimed the Gospel. And, they were unafraid to be confronted by the authorities, to the point of the apostles defending their own actions and calling out the authorities.

Then there is the apostle Paul. He was originally not only a non-believer of Jesus, but actively prosecuted, imprisoned, and voted for the death sentence for the believers. Again, God came to him, took away his sight, and showed him the truth about Jesus Christ. Saint Paul went on to become probably the greatest evangelist of the Gentiles that there ever was.

These two are pretty clear in the Bible. But there are other more subtle revelations that one must think about, look for or, in my case, be told. The events in chapter 10 of Acts contain one such revelation.

Chapter 10 begins describing how Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a Gentile, was instructed by God to send some men to Joppa to summon Simon Peter. In a dream, Simon Peter was instructed by God to take the message of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. When the men sent by Cornelius requested that Peter accompany them, he agreed to go. Simon went to the house of Cornelius, ate with him, then proceeded to preach to Cornelius, his family, and others, and converted them to Christianity; in fact, the Holy Spirit descended upon the household in a manner similar to what had occurred with the disciples on Pentecost.

When I first read this, my thinking was 'This is good. Peter is spreading the Word to the Gentiles'. But, upon further reading, contemplation and instruction, it became clear to me how big this event was. Peter was a Jew, and a devout follower of Jewish law. According to Jewish law, it was forbidden for Jews to be with, and especially to eat with, Gentiles. Eating and associating with Gentiles would render Peter spiritually and ritually unclean, since the Jews following only Jewish law were not righteous enough to overcome the unrighteousness of the Gentiles. This is not like going out to dinner with your friend that supports your team's competitor. The act of eating and associating with Gentiles was against everything that the early Jews were taught to believe. 

Could you do that? If God called you, would you be able to go into the home of your adversary and preach to them? Especially if their culture was completely different from yours – if they ate foods foreign and possibly disgusting to you; if their habits were strange or even sickening? Could you? I don't know if I could. But Peter did. All because of the awesome power of God working through Peter.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Jesus Christ Is Risen!

Jesus Christ is risen!

Easter is the greatest and oldest Christian feast. It is the Feast of Feasts. And, it is the holiest day of the year for Christians. Easter celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is the act that is core to Christian beliefs. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (647) "it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history".

This was an incredible event. Even the apostles did not believe what was happening. Consider this. According to the Gospel of Matthew (28:17) “When they (11 disciples) saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.” And, in Mark (16:11) “When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her (Mary Magdalene), they did not believe.” Luke (24:10-11) relates “The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles, but their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.” Jesus had been telling the apostles for some time that he would be crucified, and would rise from the dead. Still, the apostles, those men closest to Jesus, did not understand and did not believe.

Jesus's resurrection is not the same as raising Lazarus from the dead, which can be thought of as re-animation. With Lazarus, he came back in his earthly body, to continue his life. Jesus rose from the dead as God, in his glorified body. When we are resurrected on the last day, we too will be in our glorified bodies.

The Catholic artist Matt Maher does it again with his song “Resurrection Day”. It is an uplifting, joyous song celebrating Jesus's victory over sin and death, and our freedom from sin. It celebrates the opening of the gates of heaven for all of us. It celebrates, screams even, that Jesus Christ is God. Matt captures this latter reality with the lines: “you declare what is holy, you declare what is good, in the sight of all the nations, you declare that you are God.” Declare? Again I say Jesus is pretty much shouting it from the mountain tops.

Resurrection Day. Listen. Enjoy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Blessed People

Over the past several years, I have been striving to better understand Catholicism and increase my faith. To achieve that end, I have been participating as both attendee and facilitator in several Bible studies at my Church, and have been pretty much continually reading Christian books. As a result, I have studied the works of various authors, theologians, and saints.

One thing has struck me in my studies - for some people, the yearning to understand and love Jesus occurs later in life. Saint Augustine relates in "The Confessions of Saint Augustine" that he was basically fighting against his calling for a long time, until he read one passage out of the Bible. The passage spoke to his heart. He broke down and cried, asking God for forgiveness, and turned his life around. And, as I have related, my own coming back to Jesus occurred when I was an adult.

However, there are some who heard their calling as children or teenagers. Of course, many saints were called when they were young. Among these are Saints Catherine of Bologna,  Dominic Savio, Colette, Casimir of Poland and Margaret of Cortona. All of these saints followed their calling from God even though they were called at a young age.

Many people who are currently living, though not saints, have similarly heard the call of God at an early age. Jeff Cavins, the theologian, tells how he first became very interested in understanding the Bible when he was confirmed, which I am guessing was when he was around eight years of age. He describes how Confirmation changed him, and inspired him to begin to read the Bible. I don't even remember if we had a Bible when I was eight years old; I certainly felt no great desire to read it!

Matthew Kelly is another individual who heard God calling pre-adult. For Matthew, his calling came when he was a teenager. Matthew began to go to a Church and pray almost every day, seeking God's wisdom and peace. This ignited in him a passion for God that continues to the present day.

I sit in wonder when I hear these individuals speak (Jeff Cavins) or read their writings (Matthew Kelly). Their passion for God, and understanding for his works, is so deep. Both of these men inspire me to become better, to become holier, so that I, too, can speak with the confidence, knowledge and love for God that is so clearly in these two. I pray that my efforts will one day come to fruition.

Friday, March 28, 2014

God's Timing Is Perfect

After Abram defeated Chedorloamer and the kings that were allied with him, Abram was blessed by the priest Melchidezek. Some time after that, God came to Abram in a vision. God made a covenant with Abram, telling him that he would have numerous descendents, more numerous than the stars in the sky. At that time, Abram and his wife Sarai were advanced in age, and were childless. Sarai gave Abram her Egyptian servant Hagar, and told Abram to have intercourse with her so that Sarai could possibly have sons through Hagar. Abram did as Sarai said, and Hagar bore a son, Ishmael. Later, Sarah (renamed from Sarai by God) bore Isaac to Abraham (renamed from Abram by God).

The outcome of Abraham's decision to father a child by Hagar, contrary to God's will, resulted in difficulties. Conflicts arose between Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael became the father of the Arab nations, while Isaac became the father of the Israelites. And, the Israelites and the Arabs have been enemies ever since.

Later in the Bible, Jacob's son Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. Joseph eventually found great favor with Potiphar, an official and chief steward of the Pharoah. Potiphar's wife also favored Joseph and wanted Joseph to lie with her. After Joseph's continued refusals, Potiphar's wife accused Joseph of wanting to "amuse himself at (her) expense". Joseph was thrown into jail, where he waited patiently until he was saved by God. Joseph then went on to become great and powerful in Egypt, and saved his family (his brothers and his father Jacob) from a serious drought that ravaged the land.

Why am I relating these stories from the Bible? Because of two events in my life. Some time ago, I was speaking with an atheist friend of mine, asking why he did not believe in God. He gave me several of his reasons. The one the really struck me was basically a line from the song 'Superstar' from the rock opera 'Jesus Christ Superstar' - "if you'd come today you would have reached the whole nation. Israel 4BC had no mass communication". That is, God's timing wasn't good; he would have been more effective if he had today's technology to spread his message. Later, I discussed the conversation between myself and my atheist friend with a priest. The priest told me that, contrary to the suggestion of my friend, Jesus was born 2000 years ago because God's timing is always perfect.

The second series of events occurred to me recently. I have started a second career as a musician. This year I finally have some regular jobs, though the pay isn't that great. I decided to solicit more jobs, and hit the pavement. I haven't gone hog wild with this; and, I have not met with much success. Then, out of the blue, I received an email from someone I did not know, asking if I would play for her wedding!  Apparently she had spoken with a client of mine from last summer who gave me a glowing review. After that, I was contacted by another of last year's clients asking if I would play several times for him this summer, with a bigger payment than last year.

As I was thinking about what happened to me, and reflecting on the events in the Bible, it struck me that, as I said, God's timing is perfect. He will provide for me what he thinks I can handle, when he thinks I can handle it and thereby grow through the experience. After all, Jesus told his disciples (Luke 12:28) that "If God so clothes the grass in the field that grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?" When will I learn?

Monday, March 17, 2014

40 Days - A Time Of Testing

As I've related previously, music is a key source of inspiration for me. The feeling of the music stirs me in a way that words and pictures cannot. And, one of my favorite Christian artists is Matt Maher. Maybe because many of his songs are Christian rock, and I am an old time rocker from the 60s and 70s, I tend to catch the meaning of the music more quickly and more deeply.

Catholic tradition teaches that the number 40 refers to a time of testing. God told Noah to build an ark, and that it would rain for 40 days and 40 nights to flood the world. Moses was on the mountain with God for 40 days. The Israelites spied in Canaan for 40 days, and, as a result of their poor report,  the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Before he started his ministry, Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days. So, you can see that the number 40 is very important in Catholic theology.

One of Matt Maher's Lenten songs is '40 Days'. The first verse states: '40 days to wander, 40 days to die to self, 40 days to grow stronger as faith breaks open the gates of hell.' To me, this clearly refers to Jesus in the desert, where he fasted and prayed, and was tempted by the devil. Jesus was tempted as the Israelites under Moses were tempted. In contrast to the Israelites who did not trust God and failed, Jesus put his faith in the Father and passed the test. 

The first test dealt with hunger. The Israelites complained they had no food, not trusting God to provide for them; in response God gave them manna. The devil tested Jesus saying If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” Jesus replied, as you and I can reply to temptation, with Scripture, saying “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”

The second test for the Israelites occurred when they were looking for water (Exodus 17:1-7), testing if the Lord was near, at a site named Massah (testing). The devil tested with Scripture, saying “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you’ and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”. Again Jesus answered with Scripture saying “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”

Finally, in an effort to tempt Jesus to worship a false God as the Israelites worshiped the golden calf, the devil said “All these (the world) I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” Jesus's final rebuke, again using Scripture was “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’”

Jesus is our example. Matt Maher reminds us of the temptations and Jesus's success in the chorus where he sings: “In the desert of temptation, lies the storm of true conversion, where springs of living water drown and refresh you And as the Jordan pours out change, your true self is all that remains, where springs of living water bind and break you.” Jesus, the living water, will save us. We can defeat temptation if we will only trust God. I encourage you to listen to the 40 Days during this Lenten season, to prepare your hearts for Christ.